The Cuba In Our Mind

The Cuba In Our Mind

Mini Teaser: Castro has never seemed more firmly ensconced in power. Those who have been bold enough over the years to declare themselves his enemies are now dead, in exile, in jail, or cowering in fear of arrest.

by Author(s): Mark Falcoff

When the Soviet empire imploded some six years ago, most
observers--East and West--assumed that the disappearance of the
Castro regime in Cuba was but a matter of time. After all, no member
of the socialist family of nations had received such generous
economic subsidies from Moscow; none was more culturally vulnerable
to outside influences or more geographically exposed; none had made
so heavy an ideological investment in Lenin's vision of the future.
Having bet on the wrong horse, Castro's Cuba was therefore
destined--to borrow Trotsky's durable phrase--for the dustbin of

So far, at least, those predictions seem to have proven excessively
deterministic. True, in the absence of Soviet oil, machinery,
foodstuffs and other consumer products, Cuban living standards have
fallen catastrophically, and may not yet have touched bottom. True as
well, ordinary Cubans, particularly young people, are deeply
alienated from the regime. (Cuban walls now bear such pungent
inscriptions as "Down with You-Know-Who!") Finally, until the recent
immigration agreement, unprecedented numbers of Cubans were
attempting to leave the island on makeshift boats.

Nonetheless, Castro has never seemed more firmly ensconced in power.
Those who have been bold enough over the years to declare themselves
his enemies are now dead, in exile, in jail, or cowering in fear of
arrest. While everything else in Cuba seems to be breaking down, the
repressive apparatus is more effective than ever. The small dissident
movement, hounded by the police and government mobs, offers an
example of high courage--but no apparent alternative for ordinary
Cubans. The very fact of Castro's survival in the face of multiple
predictions of his demise seems to have braced up the Cuban dictator
psychologically. It has also strengthened the interpretive hand of
those of his apologists, supporters, or sympathizers abroad, who
would have us believe that, whatever has happened elsewhere in the
world, in Cuba--a country once known for rum, cigars, beaches,
gambling, and the rhumba--communism has finally found a place where
it really "works."

This view is not wholly confined to the far left. Not long ago a
right-wing Chilean congressman of my acquaintance urged me to
consider the possibility that "in some countries, socialism, that is,
Marxist socialism, can become a national project." When I objected
that this particular national project seemed destined to starve an
entire people to death, he agreed. It was an unpleasant project, he
averred, certainly not one he would wish for Chile, but an authentic
expression of that particular country's national quest nonetheless.
Or consider an excerpt from a cover story of the international
edition of Time magazine (December 6, 1993). "Through a combination
of charisma and pride," wrote senior editor Johanna McGeary, Castro
"still holds the island's fate in his hand...Cubans [regard] their
revolutionary heroes as Americans do...Che Guevara is their
Lafayette, Fidel their George Washington." If this is so, one cannot
help wondering why, thirty years on, we are still awaiting the
appearance of Cuba's version of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and
James Monroe. Or is it rather that Cuba--unlike the United States,
France, or for that matter Russia--is somehow capable of surviving
indefinitely on the myth of a single cathartic revolutionary moment?

If Cuba turns out, after all, to be the one place in the world where
communism really "works," Ernest Preeg has shown us just what
"working" really means. In the old days (that is, before 1989), 85
percent of Cuba's trade was with the Soviet Union, 90 percent of
which was restricted to five primary products. Because it was based
not on comparative advantage but purely circumstantial political
alignments, this relationship introduced radical distortions into the
island's economy. For example, in 1986 Cuba received eight times the
world price of sugar for its harvest. This naturally led Castro's
planners to increase the acreage devoted to sugar by one third, while
reducing that devoted to food productslike corn by in some cases as
much as 50 percent.

The sudden loss of the Soviet market is therefore a triple blow.
There is no ready-made outlet for what Cuba is geared to produce
(sugar); the prices it can now command for sugar are a fraction of
what it formerly received; and there is no apparent alternative
source of foreign exchange. This means not only that there are no
resources with which to buy what cannot be produced at home (e.g.,
foodstuffs), but that new investment to restructure the economy must
be postponed indefinitely. Meanwhile, lack of fuel, fertilizer, and
spare parts has undercut even the sugar harvest, which did not quite
reach four million tons in 1994 (slightly less than half what it was
in the heyday of the Cuban-Soviet relationship). It is expected to be
even less in 1995.

But Cuba's decline is not merely quantitative, but qualitative as
well. As Preeg observes:

"Cuba has become an undeveloping country. Bicycles are replacing
automobiles. Horse-drawn carts are replacing delivery trucks. Oxen
are replacing tractors. Factories are shut down and urban industrial
workers resettled in rural areas to engage in labor-intensive
agriculture. Food consumption is shifting from meat and processed
products to potatoes, bananas, and other staples."

Cuba is not, of course, the first country in (what used to be called)
the Third World to pursue a strategy of autarky leading to
de-development. But--given its demonstrated superiority in political
repression--it is one of the few countries capable of carrying such
policies forward over the longer term. There are precious few
loopholes in the system, which means that dogmatism and rigidity will
not be as extensively tempered in Cuba (as in, say, Franco's Spain)
by inefficiency, corruption, and administrative oversight.

The one area where Cuba can expect to move forward is in tourism,
where some European and Canadian concerns have started to make new
investments. But in spite of the fulsome claims made, Cuba cannot
replicate the past success of Mexico or Spain in this regard, since
the effects on the economy as a whole are limited by the small space
reserved for market logic by the large, still nearly universal
non-market economy. More to the point, an increase of tourist
revenues to $250 million by 1995--which seems already to have been
achieved--pales into insignificance when compared to the loss of $6
billion in Soviet resources since 1989.

There is also much talk of new investments in nickel, sugar,
telephones and such basic industries by Mexican, Canadian, British,
and other European consortia. There are, in fact, some three hundred
foreign firms now operating in Cuba, but most of these have yet to
make a new investment commitment; rather they are positioning
themselves in the eventuality that the U.S. trade embargo is lifted
and the government shifts to a full-scale market rationale.
(Presumably they are also betting that no successor-state will
penalize them for collusion with the Castro dictatorship, a wager
they may just lose.) So far the needed changes have not
occurred--not, at least, on a scale sufficient to encourage the
investors to move beyond the realm of speculation and marginality.

Stated succinctly, without drastic economic and political reform
there is no way out. But of course, to change the system too
drastically would render it unrecognizable, and altogether beg the
question of whether Cuba has really proven Marx right after all.

Guilt-managing as Art Form

Over the last five years there has been a subtle but perceptible
shift in Cuban studies in the United States to take these new
realities into account. Whereas formerly much of the emphasis was on
the alleged economic and social "successes" of the revolution,
particularly in the areas of education and health, today the
viability of the regime is located in its historicity, in its deep
roots with the Cuban past, and its continuing capacity to validate
certain pre-Castro trends and tendencies in Cuban politics--a need
which, to follow the logic of the argument, even now is best served
by hunger, rationing, repression, and cultural isolation. If one
accepts--but only if one accepts--the notion that Cuban history is
"about" the need for independence from the United States to the
exclusion of just about everything else, then the Castro regime's
demonstrated capacity to liberate the island from American influence
can be represented as a towering achievement which requires little or
no other justification. It is a case of heads I win (things are
better because of socialism), or, alternatively, tails you lose
(things are better even if they are not).

This intellectual shell game is the subject of Irving Louis Horowitz'
The Conscience of Worms and the Cowardice of Lions. In a few brief
but telling pages, it retraces the crooked path--twisted in both the
geometric and moral sense--taken by what we might call "Castrology"
in the United States these past three decades.

(Several of the other titles under review here appeared too late for
inclusion in his survey, but serve to demonstrate the degree to which
the problem persists.) Horowitz is particularly qualified to
undertake this task, since he is a distinguished sociologist in his
own right, and for nearly twenty-five years the editor of Cuban
Communism, long established in its many editions as the reader of

Essay Types: Essay